Age of action

PUBLISHED : Friday, 20 May, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 20 May, 2011, 12:00am


We are in danger of driving our life support systems over the tipping point. Our unsustainable activities are challenging the planet's resilience. At the same time, social inequalities have left large numbers of people with unmet basic human needs and disproportionately vulnerable to environmental change.

This is a key message in the just-signed Stockholm Memorandum at a gathering of Nobel laureates in the Swedish capital this week - a message that was offered to the UN High-level Panel on Global Sustainability, which went to hear the outcome of two days of deliberations among the laureates and other experts. The panel's task is to form a new vision of sustainable growth and consider how it could be achieved. Their report is due at the end of the year.

The outgoing Holocene epoch began over 10,000 years ago. The new epoch, called the Anthropocene, was coined by Nobel laureate in chemistry Paul Crutzen, who says the influence of people on the earth has become so significant that it constitutes a new geological era. The impact of human activities on ecosystems is so great that it is of significance for the evolution of all living species.

What meaning does the laureates' message have for Hong Kong? Degraded ecosystems and scarcity of natural resources are not so distant from our lives. We are only too aware of the mainland's dilemma. The degradation that comes with the exploitation of resources, the pollution that arises from production and the waste that results from consumption are only too clear to see. Surveys show people are worried about their health even if many are unclear about the consequences of less resilient ecosystems.

The laureates highlighted one particularly disquieting factor: the rich world - which includes Hong Kong and the wealthy consumers of developing economies - has the greatest impact on the earth. The current economic system, based on the ever greater use of natural resources to produce 'growth' and material things, has disconnected us from our essential interaction and dependency on the biosphere, the global sum of all ecosystems.

The laureates believe a 'business as usual' strategy for human development won't work. They called for a mind shift to reconnect us to the biosphere, which must be coupled with reducing inequalities - a message that should resonate in Hong Kong - reducing human pressures on ecosystems, and to strengthen local, national and multilateral governance systems to achieve these outcomes.

Why should one city, or even one country, take on planetary stewardship when no one else seems to be doing it? After all, we can find comfort in the views of environmental sceptics, or put our faith in the advancement of technology to solve the problem.

The laureates' answer is: 'We are the first generation facing the evidence of global change. It therefore falls upon us to change our relationship with the planet, in order to tip the scales towards a sustainable world for future generations.'

Humanity can still prosper in the new epoch if we learn to live within the safe operating boundaries of the ecosystem.

Christine Loh Kung-wai, chief executive of the think tank Civic Exchange, attended the 3rd Nobel Laureate Symposium on Global Sustainability in Stockholm